While the Powassan virus is considered rare with only 34 documented cases in Minnesota since 2008, it is not to be taken lightly. Unlike other types of tick-borne diseases, there is no treatment or cure available for those who are infected by the Powassan virus, said Laura Schoonover, interim infection preventionist at CHI St. Gabriel’s Health in Little Falls.
The Powassan virus is transmitted by infected deer ticks that are commonly known throughout Central Minnesota and are sometimes referred to as the “black-legged ticks,” she said. Deer ticks are also known for spreading tick-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease, anaplasmosis and babesiosis.
Schoonover said although no individuals were reported infected in Morrison County last year, two cases were documented in 2017.
Symptoms of a Powassan virus infection usually appear about one to four weeks after the initial tick bite. The symptoms are typically fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, seizures, encephalitis (swelling of the brain) and meningitis (swelling of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord).
Although tick season in Minnesota begins right after the snow melts and ends about in October, Schoonover said most people get infected with Powassan during June, July and August,
Schoonover said that about 10-15 percent of those who are infected die. In every single case, the individual presented a severe illness, such as meningitis or encephalitis.
Others who survived still often suffered long-term neurological symptoms, such as memory problems and headaches, she said.
The Powassan virus was first discovered in Powassan, Ontario, Canada in 1958. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, it is a “tick-borne flavivirus that is related to some mosquito-borne viruses,” such as the West Nile virus.
Schoonover said that in order for an individual to become infected with the Powassan virus, the tick would have to remain on the person for a certain length of time. Exactly how long is unknown, but estimates the time span to be less than 12-24 hours.
Deer ticks usually live on the ground in wooded areas or areas with a lot of brush.
“The ticks search for hosts at or near ground level and grab onto a person or animal as they walk by. Ticks do not jump, fly or fall from trees,” said Schoonover.
Although some people may show symptoms of being infected by the Powassan virus, many people have no symptoms or may only have mild symptoms.
The greatest way to tackle the issue of the Powassan virus is to face it straight on and take necessary steps to prevent an infection.
Some ways to avoid being diagnosed with tick-borne illnesses are to dress in lighter colored clothes as ticks are easier to spot.
“The tricky part, the ticks we are talking about are now in the nymph stage. Right now the nymphs are about the size of a poppy seed, so they are hard to see which is why wearing lighter clothing is even more important,” she said.
Wearing socks tucked over the bottom of the pants when walking in a wooded or tall-grassed areas can help, too.
A third preventative measure is using a DEET insect repellent product or by spraying Permethrin (an insecticidal compound) directly onto clothes or shoes.
Besides checking the body for ticks daily, mowing the grass frequently and keeping it short can help as well.
Schoonover also encourages people to wash their clothes and tumble dry on high for 60 minutes after being in a wooded or grassy area to make sure any ticks do not survive on their clothing.
There are several myths about how to remove a tick. However, it is not by the use of mineral oils or Vaseline or by burning a match next to it, Schoonover said.
“Remove the tick by using your pinchers or tweezers. Grab the tick as close to the skin as possible and gently pull the tick away from the skin,” she said.
Once the tick is removed, Schoonover said the area should be washed with soap and water or with rubbing alcohol.
The Minnesota Department of Health recommends found ticks be flushed down the toilet. Those who want to have the tick identified, may place the tick in a sealed plastic bag in some rubbing alcohol and bring it to their provider or to the Public Health office.
“An ounce of prevention is really a pound of cure,” she said.